3 Tools to Resolve (Almost) Any Conflict

Conflict is a natural result of trying to get things done with other people–we have different perspectives and want different things. It’s easy for that to turn into a battle of egos, but it doesn’t have to. You can move through conflict gracefully, coming out of it with better outcomes, both in terms of the decision and the relationship.

In this episode, Peter and Richard share the 3 tools they find most useful for resolving conflict and producing great outcomes.

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Episode transcription

Richard Lawrence

The most effective leaders we work with have to deal with conflict, just like anybody else. After all, conflict is a natural result of trying to get things done with other people–we have different perspectives– we want different things. It’s easy for that to turn into a battle of egos, but the most successful leaders we’ve studied seem to move through conflict gracefully, coming out of it with better outcomes, both in terms of the decision and the relationship.

Peter Green

We’ve noticed some patterns in how great leaders approach and navigate conflict. And we’ve picked up some tools we find useful for ourselves and our clients to get through conflict with better outcomes. In today’s episode, we’ll share the three tools we find most useful.


But first…this show is a free resource sponsored by the Humanizing Work Company.

Humanizing Work exists to make work more fit for humans and humans more capable of doing great work. To that end, we do training and coaching in three areas:


  1. We help leaders lead empowered teams and individuals more effectively.
  2. We help product people turn their ideas into good visions, experiments, and backlogs.
  3. We help teams collaborate better to produce meaningful outcomes on complex work.

If you or your organization would benefit from better leadership, better product management, or better collaboration, and if you find our vision for human-centric work compelling, visit the contact page on humanizingwork.com and schedule a conversation with us.


So, the first tool we turn to to resolve conflict in a healthy way is an internal tool. It’s one we use to get into a mental and emotional state where we actually can resolve the conflict.

This tool is a deliberate move from reactive to curious. When you find yourself in a conflict, take a breath. Pause the soundtrack running in your head about how you’re right, they’re unreasonable or stupid or evil or whatever, and ask, “I wonder what’s going on for them?” How might their position or behavior make sense to them? What forces might be acting on them? How might they be feeling? What do you both have in common here?

You’re not necessarily trying to talk yourself out of your side of the conflict. You may, in fact, be right.

Rather, you’re trying to give yourself some space to hold your position, your interest, your thoughts, and your emotions instead of having them hold you.

This of course is simple, but not easy. So, practice moving to curiosity when the stakes are low, and then you’ll get faster at going there when a conflict is just starting to ramp up.


OK; The second tool builds on the first, and that is to separate the facts from the story we’re telling ourselves about the facts. This tool is the core of several communications models, including Non-Violent Conversation, Crucial Conversations, and the Art of Focused Conversation. They all contain this tip. And, when I see the same pattern popping up in multiple different sources, I usually pay attention, and this is no different.

The core of this tool is to recognize the way our brain works. Our brains are constantly taking in millions of data points, and our brains have to decide which of those pieces of data to pay attention to. It would be wildly inefficient to try to monitor it all, and we’d all end up dead. So our brain takes some data, does a very rapid interpretation of the data, and in essence, makes up a story about what data means, and which data is important, and then we filter all the rest of the data based on whether it matches our story or not.

So, let’s put this in concrete terms where we’re in a conversation where there’s some conflict. Maybe I share an idea with Richard for an episode that I think will be really fun to make and it’ll be useful to a lot of people. And maybe Richard points out that the episode will take a lot longer than a standard episode, and asks what the opportunity costs. Now, since I’ve already decided I’m really excited about the episode, I make up a story where Richard is the villain and I’m the victim. “What a jerk, can’t he see how cool this episode idea is?” So now I’m telling two stories–Number one, my episode idea is a good idea, and number two, Richard’s a jerk for not supporting it. PHEW! My mental legs are tired from the number of conclusions I just leapt to!

So first, separate out the facts.  Really, there are two facts. I shared an episode idea with Richard, and Richard asked a question about opportunity costs. Now, make it clear the stories I’m making up in my head: like “The episode idea is awesome, and Richard is a stick in the mud.” Richard, I notice your villainy is growing as I stick with this analogy. [Richard and Peter share a laugh and Richard jokes they might need to have a talk.] And this is how it works, right?–The stories are reinforcing. We don’t need much new data for them to grow and calcify and turn into, like, an identity. Before we know it, I’m always the one bringing new ideas and Richard is always the one shooting them down, and there’s no data backing those stories up.

So separate out the facts from the story, and go back to tool number one–get curious. What other stories could I tell about Richard’s motivation for asking about opportunity cost? Maybe Richard has three cool ideas too, and his might be better than mine and easier to make! Or maybe Richard just read another interesting article about opportunity cost that’s a new lens on that and he’s psyched to try it out! There are lots of other stories I could tell that might make sense here. And what other stories could I tell about the certainty that my idea is great? Maybe I should practice some intellectual humility here, and test the idea before I invest weeks in making it. You get the idea. Try out a few alternative stories, and that usually creates enough space to get curious about the actual facts and then to listen to the other person’s story. It’s as easy as “Richard, tell me more about your thinking on the opportunity cost here…”


So, both of the tools we’ve talked about so far, are a different way of thinking and talking about a conflict.  There are some conflicts where it’s useful to make the conflict itself more visible so we can do something about it, and our favorite example of that is the evaporating cloud.

This is a tool from Eli Goldratt’s Theory of Constraints. It’s useful for dealing with a particular kind of conflict, one that benefits from visualization. Namely, a situation where there are two good options and you can’t do both. Maybe you feel strongly about one side and someone else feels strongly about the other side. Or maybe you see the attractions of both sides and feel stuck. Sometimes it’s even a group that is split over two possibilities.

In these situations, there’s a common human behavior that leaves us stuck. Which is trying to sound reasonable while behaving in an extreme way. So, we talk about each side, gently hedging our argument, especially if there’s an interpersonal disagreement involved. But then we stick to our side on the basis of more extreme assumptions than the ones we’ve articulated.

The evaporating cloud gives us a way to make all that visible, to make it “object” to everyone involved. And once our positions and the assumptions behind them are visible, we can often find a breakthrough solution to the conflict, often getting the benefits of both sides simultaneously.

So, here’s how to build an evaporating cloud…

First, capture the immediate conflict. Usually, it boils down to some form of “Do action X” on one side and “Do action Y” on the other, where X and Y feel like they can’t happen at the same time. Sometimes, it’s literally opposites: “Do action X” on one side, and “Don’t do action X” on the other.”

Next, capture the best reason to do each side. The outcome you’re trying to create.  So, it’ll be, “Get outcome X” and “Get outcome Y.” Now, it’s important that we capture this using necessity logic. Which is to say, we should be able to read what we wrote like this: “In order to get outcome X, we must do action X.” And, “In order to get outcome Y, we must do action Y.” If that doesn’t read right, with your things filled in, rephrase what you captured.

Then, find some reason why we both care about having outcome X and outcome Y. Capture that as outcome Z. And we want to use necessity logic again, so we need to be able to read it like this: “In order to get outcome Z, we must have outcome X and we must have outcome Y.” Again, if that doesn’t read right, rephrase what you captured.

All right, that was a lot of letters, so let’s fill in a concrete example. How about this common one?

On one side we have, “Hire more staff” and on the other side, we have “Don’t hire more staff” People can get pretty fired up about this one. It can be a source of interpersonal conflict, not just a hard business decision. Maybe some people feel overwhelmed with their current workload and desperately want to hire some help. But others are afraid of growing expenses too fast and having to lay people off or even going out of business. It can get emotional.

So, if we capture “Hire more staff” and “Don’t hire more staff” as actions X and Y, the desired outcomes, read as necessity logic, will sound something like this:

“In order to have a sustainable workload, we must hire more staff.”

On the other side, “In order to keep our costs lower than our revenue, we must not hire more staff.”

And the good reason for both is probably something pretty high level like, “Have a sustainable business.” So we could read the necessity logic there as, “In order to have a sustainable business, we must have a sustainable workload and we must keep our costs lower than our revenue.”

Ok, we’ve modeled the conflict, and we can see why it feels sticky. Both sides have good arguments here.

Now, the move is to visualize the assumptions behind those necessity logic statements. “In order to get outcome X, we must take action X because…” (then you fill in the blank). Here’s the critical detail for the cloud to work: You have to follow the necessity logic into the assumptions. They should sound almost ridiculously strong. Like, “In order to get outcome X, we must take action X because action X is the ONLY possible way to achieve that outcome.”

This practice of stating assumptions as strongly as possible triggers our brains to start looking for reasons why the necessity logic doesn’t hold. “Hey, wait a minute! Action X can’t be the ONLY way to achieve that outcome. There’s gotta be something else.” And that’s the way out of the conflict.

Let’s go back to our hiring cloud and see what it looks like…

“In order to have a sustainable workload, we must hire more staff because…”

“It’s impossible to have a sustainable workload with our current staff.”

“Hiring is the only way to increase the sustainability of our workload.”

Keep doing this for all 5 arrows on the cloud, including the one about why we can’t do action X and action Y at the same time.

Now, once you have all the assumptions visible, start looking for ways out of the conflict. My favorite approach here is to cover up one of the actions and ask, “If we couldn’t do this, what would we still need to do to get both outcomes?” And then do the reverse. Cover up the other side and say, “If we couldn’t do that, what would we need to do to get both outcomes?” Then try covering up both actions. Say, “If we couldn’t do either of these, what would we need to do to still get the outcomes we want?

You can also do that at the next level in the conflict. “How could we get that ultimate outcome without either of the two that lead into it?”

So, back to the hiring cloud again…

“If we couldn’t hire new staff, what would we need to add to still have a sustainable workload?”

“Maybe we could reduce our commitments.”

“Maybe we could prioritize or slice the work more aggressively.”

“What if we found ways to get more efficient at our current commitments? Where is there some waste?”

I won’t go through the whole cloud here, but hopefully you can see the pattern. You make the conflict visible in the strongest possible terms, and then look for ways to get what you really care about without having to do the conflicting actions.

Not only does the evaporating cloud reliably help people discover breakthrough solutions. It also helps people see the other side of a conflict and builds a sense that we’re in it together, solving a common problem.


Now, these three tools aren’t a magic wand that will resolve every single conflict. The other people involved need to have at least some interest in resolving it. You might be able to change your perspective on an acceptable outcome in order to get there, or maybe you can persuade them to change theirs. What the three tools do give you is a significantly better chance of resolving the conflict in a way that both parties walk away feeling like they got a good outcome.


So, next time conflict comes your way, get curious, separate the facts from the story, and maybe give the evaporating cloud a try.

Thanks for tuning in!

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